- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

Israel’s unilateral disengagement from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip has brought both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a crossroad in the Middle East “road map.”

A wrong turn at this point could result in either man losing his job to a more hawkish party — which could take both sides backward, possibly toward renewed violence.

Mr. Sharon, the hero of the June 1967 Six-Day War, during which Gaza was occupied, will likely face a new battle in the months ahead, this time against fellow Likudnik and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bibi, as he is called by his friends, resigned Aug. 7 from Mr. Sharon’s government as finance minister, saying he disagreed with the pullout from Gaza, and arguing it would only invite more terrorist attacks. Bibi wants the premiership back, and will fight for it, even if it means a split in the Likud.

Arik, as Mr. Sharon’s friends call him, accused Mr. Netanyahu of flip-flopping on his Gaza stance. Seems flip-flopping is not reserved exclusively to U.S. politics.

As David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute, notes so well in a special report on the Arab-Israeli peace process, Mr. Netanyahu did waver.

“Indeed,” writes Mr. Makovsky, “Netanyahu voted four times for disengagement: twice in the Cabinet, on June 6, 2004, and Feb. 20, 2005, and twice in the Knesset, on Oct. 26, 2004, and Feb. 16, 2005. (He was absent on a Knesset vote held July 20, 2005.) Moreover, Netanyahu pointedly refused to leave the government despite mounting appeals by critics of disengagement in the 18 months since Sharon announced his intention to pull out of Gaza.”

Pre-pullout polls favored Mr. Netanyahu. A poll by Haaretz newspaper gave 47 percent support to Mr. Netanyahu, compared to 33 percent for Mr. Sharon. As Mr. Makovsky says: “Worrisome for Sharon is the fact that only 14 of his party’s 40 parliamentary members consistently vote with him.”

Strangely, Mr. Sharon’s political future may well rest in the hands of those he has spent a lifetime fighting. The Palestinians. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Movement, could easily tip the balance against him, simply by firing a few Qassam rockets and mortar rounds into Israel. However, as ironic as it may sound, faced with Mr. Netanyahu as the alternative, Hamas may well wish to do everything in its power to help Mr. Sharon keep his job.

If Hamas resorts to violence, it will weaken Mr. Sharon, whom Bibi will accuse of caving in to terrorism and of giving up Gaza for nothing. Hoping to pre-empt a Hamas offensive, Mr. Sharon went on national television Aug. 15 to address the Palestinian leadership. More irony, Mr. Sharon borrowed almost textually from his old nemesis Yasser Arafat’s 1974 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, when the PLO leader said: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

Similarly, Mr. Sharon said, “To an outstretched hand of peace, we will respond with an olive branch, but fire will be met by fire more intense than ever.”

Mr. Makovsky sees Mr. Sharon asserting himself in that statement: “By employing violent rhetoric, Sharon wants to make clear that no one should mistake statesmanship for weakness, implying that he will not allow Netanyahu to assume the mantle of the security candidate.”

On the other side of the electrified fence, Mr. Abbas is playing his political future, too, by going along with Mr. Sharon’s disengagement plan and trying to keep Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radicals in line.

If elections are held in the Palestinian areas when due in January, Hamas is likely to be the frontrunner. It will claim credit for getting Israel to evacuate Gaza, saying it was its continued harassment of Israeli troops and settlers that eventually forced them out. It will follow the Hezbollah example of south Lebanon.

Mr. Abbas, on the other hand, is likely to be perceived by many Palestinians as having gone along with Mr. Sharon by acting as his policeman during the Gaza withdrawal, in ensuring Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other extremists were kept under control.

That is why it is important the Gaza withdrawal not be the last step, but acts as a motivator for both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas to unfurl the “road map” and start eagerly discussing where they go next from here. Stagnation then could send the “road map” falling to Mr. Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership, where it will be folded up and placed on a back shelf to gather dust along with a slew of previous Middle East peace initiatives.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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